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The clues are in there!
on 1 June 2010
Ngaio (it's a Maori name, possibly pronounced "nay -o") Marsh had her first book "A Man Lay Dead" published in 1934 and continued writing whodunnits (32 in all) right up to the year before she died, in 1982.
That's a little less than half the output of Agatha Christie, but then Ms Marsh had only one detective, and in any case had a "day job" in live theatre, as actress and producer.
Combine this with the fact that her stories frequently followed very similar patterns (not so obvious, perhaps, if you don't read all 32, one straight after the other, as I just did), leads me to dispute the claim that Ngaio Marsh was the "Empress" in the golden era of detective fiction. The equal of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers - the "Queens" of detective fiction? Maybe, though personally I'd award the race to Christie, by at least a head.
Still (in case you thought this was going to be a negative review), when you're in that kind of company even coming equal second is a pretty outstanding achievement.
And when you can get three books for almost as little as the previous price of one, this has to be "an offer no true whodunnit fan can refuse"!
In this first book we get the first three Roderick Alleyn mysteries, starting with "A Man Lay Dead".
A big plus for many readers must be the setting, an old-fashioned house party where the murderer strikes and the detective hero arrives within the first 50 pages. There are as many illicit relationships as there are in any edition of "Midsommer Murder", and by introducing a newspaper reporter (Nigel Bathgate) into the story who is both a guest at the houseparty and a friend of the detective, Marsh achieves the trick of giving us multiple perspectives on the action without having to go all dissociated on us.
Although this is one of the "short" books (just slightly longer than the average Agatha Christie), the clever plotting and the genuine (but not outrageous) twist at the end already indicate a long and successful career in writing.
In the second book, Enter a Murderer (1935), we have a play about a murder as the background for a "real life" homicide and other dubious activities. And once again, the victim has become so loathsome by the time they die that you feel like cheering when the dirty deed is done.
Marsh's style tends to go for close-ups rather than car chases and the like, though on this occasion one of theatre people leads the police on a wild goose chase - and pays the ultimate price - before the real killer is revealed. All of which adds up to another neatly presented classic whodunnit of the pre-war period.
The third outing for Alleyn, Fox and Bathgate - The Nursing Home Murder (1935) - has a passing similarity to the Alastair Sim film "Green for Danger", taking place in the claustrophobic world of a nursing home where the Home Secretary is forced to become a patient when he is struck down by peritonities. It proves to be his penultimate resting place. But whodunnit? Was it a member of one of the groups who have threatened the Home sEcretary's life. Or is the murderer literally "closer to the home"?
Marsh makes a good job of keeping up the tension balancing the small group of suspects directly connected with the dead man against the outside threat. And if the solution to the case isn't entirely unexpected, it does all end in a very satisfying 1930s style.
If you've not read any of Marsh's books before, get this trio. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.